Born in London on 31st January 1735, Tilly Kettle was the son of a coach painter, Henry Kettle. His father taught him the rudiments of painting and he went on to study at William Shipley’s drawing school in the Strand; he may also have attended the St Martin’s Lane Academy and drawn at the Duke of Richmond’s sculpture gallery. In the early 1750s he was introduced to Joshua Reynolds, who influenced his early work. Kettle specialised in portraiture and conversation pieces, exhibiting his first portrait at the Free Society of Artists in 1761. In 1762 he restored Robert Streater’s allegorical ceiling painting at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford; the following year he painted a portrait of Dr Francis Yarborough, Principal of Brasenose College. Both commissions were probably obtained through Kettle’s patron Sir Richard Kaye, Bt., Dean of Lincoln. From 1762-4 he worked in Oxford and the Midlands, painting among other sitters kinsmen of Kaye such as the family of William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth.
In 1765 Kettle exhibited three works at the Society of Artists, including a full-length portrait of Mrs Yates as Mandane in the ‘Orphan of China’ (Tate Britain, London). He exhibited at the Society of Artists until 1776, then transferred allegiance to the Royal Academy. In 1768 he showed an ambitious group portrait, An Admiral in his cabin issuing Orders, which depicts Vice-Admiral Sir Samuel Cornish, Captain (later Rear-Admiral Sir) Richard Kempenfelt and Cornish’s secretary Thomas Parry.
In 1768, probably with the encouragement of Admiral Cornish, Tilly Kettle applied to the East India Company for the right of passage to Bengal to work as an artist. He sailed for the Indian subcontinent on the Nottingham, arriving at Madras on 2nd May 1769, the first professional British artist to make a career in India. Kettle spent two years in Madras, painting nabobs, merchants and Army officers. The pictures he sent home for exhibition included a full-length group portrait of Muhammad Ali Khan, Nawab of Arcot, and his five sons in 1771, a genre scene of dancing girls in 1772 and a scene of suttee in 1776.
Kettle travelled to Calcutta in late 1771, then to Fyzabad at the invitation of Shuja ud-Daula, Nawab of Oudh, whom he painted several times. Like many of his countrymen, he took an Indian bibi, or mistress; two daughters, Ann and Elizabeth, were born in 1773 and 1774. Kettle lived in Calcutta from 1773-6, painting the élite of the English administration, among them Sir Elijah Impey, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Warren Hastings.
Returning to England in 1776, the following year Kettle married Mary (1753-1798), daughter of the architect James Paine, who was probably attracted by the fortune he had amassed in India. The couple occupied a lavish house in Bond Street, but Kettle could not regain the level of prosperity he had had in India. He relied on a network of existing patrons such as Sir Robert Barker, who commissioned Shah Alam, Mughal Emperor, reviewing the 3rd Brigade of the East India Company’s troops at Allahbad (Victoria Memorial Hall, Calcutta).
By 1783 Kettle was forced to leave Bond Street; he travelled to Ireland to escape his creditors and in 1786 set out overland for India. By July he had reached Aleppo (then in Turkey, today in Syria) where he painted The Turkish Janissary of the English Factory, Aleppo (private collection). Kettle is thought to have died towards the end of 1786, probably in the desert on the way to Basrah.
The work of Tilly Kettle is represented in the National Portrait Gallery, London; the Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Tate Britain, London; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT and the Victoria Memorial Hall, Calcutta.